A Totality Without an Eclipse: from Edward Said

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

From the 1982 essay by Edward Said (1935-2003): “Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies, and Community”:

Certainly there is a great deal to be said in favor of a university manifestly not influenced or controlled by coarse partisan politics.

But one thing in particular about the university—and here I speak about the modern university without distinguishing between European, American, or Third World and socialist universities—does appear to exercise an almost totally unrestrained influence: the principle that knowledge ought to exist, be sought after, and disseminated in a very divided form.

Whatever the social, political, economic, and ideological reasons underlying this principle, it has not long gone without its challengers.

Indeed, it may not be too much of an exaggeration to say that one of the most interesting motifs in modern world culture has been the debate between proponents of the belief that knowledge can exist in a synthetic universal form and, on the other hand, those who believe that knowledge is inevitably produced and nurtured in specialized compartments.

Georg Lukács’ attack on reification and his advocacy of “totality,” in my opinion, very tantalizingly resemble the wide-ranging discussions that have been taking place in the Islamic world since the late nineteenth century on the need for mediating between the claims of a totalizing Islamic vision and modern specialized science.

These epistemological controversies are therefore centrally important to the workplace of knowledge production, the university, in which what knowledge is and how it ought to be discovered are the very lifeblood of its being.

(Critical Inquiry, 9 (Sept. 1982) quoted from Reflections on Exile: and Other Essays, (London: Granta, 2001), p. 125)